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Chad Pinder, 2021 breakout candidate

Oakland Athletics v San Francisco Giants
Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

What if Playoff Pinder became a permanent thing?

Last October, Chad Pinder finally had his moment.

After years of operating under the radar as the platoon super-sub who never got a full-time role, he etched his name into Oakland A’s lore forever in the 2020 playoffs. His two-run single served as the ultimate series-winner in the Wild Card Round against the White Sox, and he carried the team to their only victory in an eventual ALDS defeat to the Houston Astros.

Postseason success comes in tiny, unreliable samples by its very definition, and sometimes it doesn’t amount to anything more than a perfectly timed hot streak. But what if Playoff Pinder wasn’t just a fluke, but rather a player finally unlocking his true ceiling?

Over the years, Pinder’s batting line has hovered within reach of league average, usually below it but occasionally above. He hits for a low average, doesn’t walk enough to salvage his OBP, and provides solid midlevel power, typically in around 300+ plate appearances per summer.

Pinder, career: .244/.302/.430, 98 wRC+, 6.5% BB, 26.2% Ks

But look under the surface, and there are a few encouraging trends over the course of his career.

Year BB% K% SwStr% xwOBA EV
2017 5.8 29.8 14.4 .339 89.4
2018 8.1 26.4 13.4 .363 91.2
2019 5.4 23.8 12.0 .306 90.9
2020 8.2 21.3 10.7 .325 92.3

His walks have been all over the place, but he’s consistently cut his strikeouts each year. He’s not swinging any less often, he just makes contact more and more, which is important because he hits the ball as hard as anyone on the team. The league averages in the high-80s for exit velocity, and last summer Pinder ranked 26th out of 379 batters across MLB in that department. His Statcast xwOBA is better than average most years, including 2020.

So what changed about Playoff Pinder? Nothing, necessarily, He just began producing more like you’d expect from someone who has a career .333 xwOBA and 90.6 exit velo and is constantly reducing his whiffs. His peripherals didn’t change in October, and in fact some went down slightly — .318 xwOBA, and 90.4 exit velocity. His perpetually strong contact just did something this time. It didn’t hurt that he finally drew a few walks as well, three of them in 26 plate appearances.

Pinder, playoffs: 7-for-22, 2 HR, double, 3 BB, 6 Ks, 7 RBI, sac fly

And then this spring he kept it up. His 1.119 OPS included seven extra-base hits and seven walks in 53 plate appearances, with three of those hits going for homers.

Pinder, spring: .356/.453/.667, 3 HR, 13.2% BB, 17.0% Ks

Cactus League stats aren’t to be trusted, but if you wanted to know what a fully evolved Pinder might look like, that’s it. The key is in the plate discipline, where his walks and strikeouts continue moving in the good directions until they nearly meet in the middle. That’s the kind of trend we saw from Matt Chapman as he established himself as a star hitter, and before him Josh Donaldson, and also Marcus Semien in his MVP-level 2019 campaign.

If you want to know which hitter is going to get better, often it’s the one who is learning how to not swing at the pitches that induce outs, and instead swing at the ones they can punish. The power has always been there waiting dormant in Pinder’s bat, but discipline and pitch selection can help bring it out. If that’s what we saw last October and this March instead of just a pure small-sample fluke, then there’s at least a chance it could be real moving forward.

Of course, spring mirages are a dime a dozen. In 2019, Pinder struck out just once in 39 spring plate appearances with a 1.160 OPS, and then went on to have the worst offensive season of his career so far. That’s why he’s a breakout candidate, not a guaranteed star.

But Opening Day is a time for hope and optimism, and it’s easy to root for Pinder to build on his October heroics. The team seems to believe in him too, as he’s in the starting lineup Thursday, at the platoon disadvantage against ace right-handed pitcher Zack Greinke, getting the nod above longtime RF Stephen Piscotty and new lefty-swinging rookie Ka’ai Tom.

That doesn’t mean he’s the everyday RF now, reports Shayna Rubin of the Mercury News, as the others will get their turns at the position too. But it’s a reminder that Pinder’s defensive versatility makes it possible to squeeze his bat into the order whenever desired, at just about any spot on the field. If he gets hot enough at the plate, he’ll never be blocked from the opportunity to continue his roll.

Is this the year Pinder becomes a star, at the prime age of 29, or will he settle back in as a solid role player with occasional spurts of brilliance? The six-month answer begins tonight.

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